Both Valladolid, Mérida and Campeche are praised in travel blogs and books as the most beautiful city in the Yucatán peninsula. It is the colorful streets, the lively street scene and the lovely restaurants that would make the cities a don’t miss on your travel route through Mexico. We visited all three of them and can therefore tell you exactly what makes these cities so much fun. We compare them on their colorful street scene, cenotes in the area, the location, the culture and the great eateries. Which of the three is really a don’t miss?
Comparing the three best cities in the Yucatán peninsula
# 1 The colorful streets
At this point Campeche wins without a doubt. In Valladolid and Mérida many buildings and streets are painted in cheerful colors. But in Campeche, that is really every building in the old city. We wondered whether the dyeing of every building is imposed by the municipality. Would there be a fine? Would the municipality give a subsidy? It is almost unreal how every building in the old center has been painted in a different color. The best activity in Campeche is simply wandering through the colorful streets.
# 2 Visiting cenotes
A visit to at least one cenote should definitely be on your wish list for Mexico. Cenotes are an underground water hole with bright blue water, fish and lots of mystery. Almost all of them are connected to each other underground, but that system has still not been properly mapped. We do understand why the Mayans saw these places as a gateway to the underworld and therefore as holy places! Did you know that in many cenotes offerings from Mayans have also been found? Yes, also human sacrifices.
Vallodalid and Mérida are in the middle of the epicenter of all the cenotes of Mexico. We visited several cenotes in the area in both cities. And did you know that in both cities you can also find a cenote in the city itself? Valladolid also has a great cenote within cycling distance, ideal if you don’t have a rental car. The cenotes around Mérida are a little further, about an hour away. But then there are very, very many of them.
Winners: Valladolid and Mérida
# 3 The location in Yucatán
When it comes to location, weighing becomes a bit more complex. Mérida is perfectly connected to eastern Yucatán via a good toll road. You are already in Valladolid in less than 2 hours’ drive. Cancún is less than 4 hours away. The idyllic beach of Celestun is a 1.5-hour drive away. The distances are not so bad, but Mérida is not very central and easy to reach. Mérida is the only one of the three that has an (international) airport.
Campeche has the advantage that it is directly on the coast. Count on breathtaking sunsets and pleasant walks on the promenade. Unfortunately, there is no beach, so you will have to travel again. Campeche is also quite far from other places that you will visit. It is only over 2 hours from Mérida, but other destinations such as Palenque and Mayan city Calakmul are a 5-hour drive away.
Valladolid is close to the places in Yucatán that you undoubtedly want to visit, such as Tulum, Cancun and Bacalar. That makes Valladolid the easiest to combine with your travel route. Valladolid is also the perfect base for visiting the famous Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and the pink lakes and flamingos in Las Coloradas.
# 4 The culture
We love to really sniff the local culture while traveling. To visit museums, admire art and absorb history. At this point, Valladolid and Campeche have much less to offer than Mérida. In Valladolid the monastery and the local market are the places to see more of the culture. In Campeche you have to go to the impressive church and to the small museums in the city walls about piracy in particular.
Mérida is a very different story. The city is the cultural center of the entire peninsula. Many museums can be visited free of charge, so you can easily take in everything. From the colonial history in Casa Montejo to modern art in museums and galleries. We also recommend that you do a free walking tour. There are free guided tours of the center in the morning and evening. We learned about the local history and the customs and traditions. Another must is the demonstration of the ancient Mayan ball game every Saturday night on the square in front of the church.
# 5 The best hotspots and restaurants
Love goes through the stomach, even when it comes to love for a city. We found lovely restaurants in all three cities, but less so in Campeche. The old center is of course very small and therefore has less to offer.
Valladolid has many more great spots for breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner and drinks. You will find most places in the Calle de los Frailes, also one of the most colorful streets in the city.
But then you have bustling Merida where you can find amazing spots everywhere in the center and beyond. One of our favorites in the center is Mercado 60, a cozy food court with various stalls and live music. For the best coffee you have to go to Manifesto and for a good breakfast you score at Marmelade or a bit further down the road at Latte Quatro Sette. And we can go on and on.
Final verdict: we are Mérida fans
Mérida is the winner for us when it comes to culture and food spots. You can enjoy yourself here endlessly, especially if you also take a day trip to a cenote like we did twice.
But you shouldn’t miss Valladolid, so close to the other highlights of Mexico and yet on your route to Mérida. We also really liked Campeche and it was handy on our route from Mérida to Palenque. If you don’t have enough time or already had enough of the colorful towns? Then we would still skip Campeche.